Moss ‘new’ to Assynt at Clashnessie

March 27th 2022

Moss ‘new’ to Assynt at Clashnessie

Alongside the B869 east of Clashnessie, just after it turns inland, lies Loch na Bruthaich (loch of the hillside).  Running up the gentler slope south of the loch is an old track (photo 1).  It was the predecessor of the modern road, completed in the 1890s, which cuts through the seaward side of Creag an Fhithich (crag of the raven), at the notorious ‘Clashnessie Pinch’. 

South of Loch na Bruthaich

This track was the starting point, on 2nd March, for a bryological expedition with Gordon Rothero, who was up for his spring visit (30 years after his first, in April 1992).  Our destination was the 1km square south of Loch na Bruthaich, over to the eastern end of the sinuous Loch nan Lub (NC0730; see map, photo 2).  Although the line of the track seems obvious from afar, it is now obscured by dense vegetation, including heather, bracken and sallow bushes.  After about half a kilometre, we cut up the course of a burn and finally arrived at a small lochan on the northern edge of our target area (NC071309), where a coffee break allowed me to get my breath back and start logging Gordon’s finds. 

Over the next hour and a half we wove our way south around a series of lochans (photo 3) on the western boundary of the square.  Low outcrops of gneiss bore small prostrate junipers Juniperus communis nana and patches of bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.  The presence of black bog-rush Schoenus nigricans in the wetter parts indicated some degree of base-flushing.  Occasional straight lines bordering wetter areas were ancient peat banks (photo 4).  Otherwise there were, as often in the interior of Assynt, no signs of human occupation of the planet.  

Shelter and rare mosses

The landscape was lit by a bright low sun shining from a cloudless sky, but a brisk, cold, southerly wind made our eyes and noses water, and we were thankful for fleece-lined clothing.  At the southern end of an attractive starfish-shaped loch, with wooded margins and islands, we found shelter from the wind in a small walled enclosure against a taller gneiss crag, and settled down for lunch (photo 5).  We wondered who had built it, when, and, given the effort involved, why; presumably something to do with livestock.

The crag bore more signs of base-enrichment, with black spleenwort Aspenium adiantum-nigrum in crevices, and wild thyme Thymus polytrichus and cat’s-ear Hypochaeris radicata nearby.  Consulting the geological map later, we found that it is sited on a mafic dyke, which fits.  On north-facing rock was a good local indicator species, the neat cushions of black-tufted moss Glyphomitrium daviesii, which is very rare away from the west coast of Scotland.

The enclosure was floored with grassland and bracken, the only time we came across this vegetation in the target square, suggesting better-drained soils, perhaps derived from a small area of glacial till.  There was a large bush of prostrate juniper, but the star find, by Gordon, was a fairly nondescript, sprawling, shiny moss (photo 6), which he later identified as velvet feather-moss Brachytheciastrum velutinum, never before recorded in Assynt.   It is common in lowland Britain, but becomes very scarce in the far north and west (map, photo 7), and there appear to be only two other records from West Sutherland as a whole, near Kinlochbervie and somewhere in Strath Naver.

Northern shore of Loch nan Lub

After lunch, we made our way eastwards to the northern shore of Loch nan Lub (loch of the bends, NC074303).  Here Gordon found, despite brisk wave-action, a characteristic species of loch-shore boulders, capillary wing-moss Pterygynandrum filiforme, which occurs only rarely outside Scotland.  There were also more large bushes of prostrate juniper on the edge of the loch, which I logged as part of a study of its local distribution.  

At this point we turned, thankfully, out of the wind, and made our way back north.  A small mire sloping down to a lochan housed two hummocks of Austin’s bog-moss Sphagnum austinii, a good sign of lack of disturbance.  A little later, we came across a hitherto-unrecorded stand of the uncommon great fen-sedge Cladium mariscus at the edge of yet another lochan (photos 8 and 9).  

We reached the car after some five hours in the field.  Gordon’s tally for the day was 60 species of mosses and 18 of liverworts, a good haul from a previously-unexplored part of Assynt’s delightful cnoc-and-lochan landscape.  

Ian M. Evans

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